Ironically, George Meredith, one of nineteenth century England’s greatest novelists, actually considered himself a poet. Regrettably, the several volumes of poetry he published during his lifetime went largely unnoticed. Even thoughAlfred, Lord Tennyson, praised “Love in the Valley,” published in his first volume, Poems (1851), dedicated to his then father-in-law, Thomas Love Peacock, it was as a novelist that Meredith achieved recognition in his own time. Undaunted, nevertheless, Meredith continued to write poems and, in keeping with his stated vocation and with his aspiration, both his first and his last published books were collections of poems.
Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside (1862) represents Meredith’s lyric and dramatic power at its height, especially in the sequence of fifty sixteen-line lyrics, Modern Love. In these poems, Meredith traces the dissolution of a marriage with an unrestrained candor that is more like the attitudes toward marital relationships of the late twentieth century than the straight-faced, closed-lipped Victorian notions. At the lowest point in the sequence, the persona exclaims, “In tragic life, God wot,/ No villain need be! Passions spin the plot;/ We are betrayed by what is false within.” Herein Meredith seems to capture with great precision the essence of tragedy. Meredith’s poetic vision is not always dark; light imagery, in fact, plays a significant role in his poetry.
The thinking man appears often in Meredith’s works, but he is perhaps most prominent in the 1877 work On the Idea of Comedy and of the Uses of the Comic Spirit. This essay is significant enough to be included in many contemporary collections of criticism, especially in those that pertain to drama. Acknowledging that the muse of comedy has never been “one of the most honored of the Muses,” Meredith submits that it is the “Comic Spirit” that civilizes humans. By means of thoughtful laughter, the Comic Spirit corrects and checks the foibles of all those who exceed the bounds of temperance and indulge by excessive behavior. Although Meredith opened himself to censure in his own day, his ideas about women and their roles in comedy are particularly interesting to today’s readers. Indeed, comedy, “the fountain of common sense,” teaches that men and women are social equals and that women are often men’s superiors.